By Charlie Smith
In Athena Wong’s music video for “Sunday”, the Burnaby resident is singing joyously in the sunshine on a jetty alongside the Strait of Georgia.
It’s a picturesque image in Iona Regional Park in Richmond, reflecting a slice of B.C.’s entertainment scene rarely featured in the mainstream media.
Wong belts out a stanza of her catchy pop song in English: We’re gonna make it alright/Play this song/Let’s vibe along/And we’ll dance ’til the twilight.
But the vast majority of the lyrics are in Cantonese. It’s an homage to her upbringing in Hong Kong before moving to B.C. 10 years ago to attend Simon Fraser University.
The song captured a nationwide singing competition put on by Fairchild, a major Chinese-language broadcaster in Canada. It’s her fourth award in four years.
“Music is music,” Wong tells Pancouver over Zoom. “But putting in the language adds the flavour and the culture.”
Wong is one of a growing number of Vancouver musicians embracing “Vantopop”. They even have a name—the Vantopop Collective. It’s a play on Cantopop, which has been a staple of the Hong Kong music scene since the 1970s.
“Oh yes, I was very influenced by Canto music,” Wong says from her home in Burnaby.
Watch Athena Wong’s video for her award-winning single “Sunday”.
Jade Music Festival offers something new
Later this month at the inaugural Jade Music Festival, Vancouverites will have a chance to take in more Vantopop.
From November 28 to December 3, TD is presenting this global conference honouring Chinese-language music. In addition to concerts by Wong and others, there will be workshops, networking sessions, and discussions.
“We see an opportunity for Vancouver to do something unique—establish a beachhead for Chinese-language music production in North America,” says Charlie Wu, general manager of The Society of We Are Canadians Too, which created the weeklong series of events.
Other members of the Vantopop Collective include North Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Duck Lau, who’s enjoyed a thriving musical career in Hong Kong.
Another is 3721 Productions founder and Yellow! bandmember Siu Ki Chris Ho, who lives in Richmond. Lau and Ho recently spoke to Pancouver over the same Zoom connection about their participation in the Vantopop Collective.
Ho explains that the collective’s objective is not only to appeal to Chinese-language speakers.
“Our goal is to use our language to let the mainstream people understand us,” he says. “We hope Vancouver will be a Cantopop hub.”
Ho uses the Cantonese term “faai leng jeng” to describe people from his hometown of Hong Kong. He translates that into English as “fast, good, and beautiful”. And he wants the Vantopop Collective’s example to spur members of the Hong Kong diaspora to promote Cantonese-language music in other western cities.
Music can transcend language barrier
Lau and Ho have already witnessed how K-pop migrated from South Korea across the Pacific Ocean to North America.
Meanwhile, Bollywood music created in Mumbai has won a huge number of fans across the Arab world. And as far back as 1959 with Ritchie Valens’s “La Bamba”, Spanish-language music has enjoyed tremendous success in the United States.
Members of the Vantopop Collective would love that to occur with Cantonese-language songs in Canada and other western countries.
“As you can see in movies, there are so many more Asian stars now,” Lau points out.
He adds that it makes sense to produce Chinese-language music in Vancouver, given the sizeable Chinese-language population in the region.
“We have the vision,” Lau says. “We are planting the seeds.”
Lo then mentions that they also go by the more formal name of the Hong Kong Professional Musicians in Canada.
“We have a group of professional musicians living in Vancouver now,” Lo says. “We always go back and forth to do shows in Asia.”
Vantopop musicians perform abroad
According to Lau, there are eight musician members of HKPMC, as well as advisers who’ve retired from the industry. The active musicians perform with Chinese-language international megastars.
“They basically tour around wherever you find Chinese people—U.S.A., Australia, London, or Amsterdam,’ Lau says. “We’ve been to places like that all over the world.”
In 2021, the Vantopop Collective held its first local event at a T-Fresh venue in Richmond .
Back in Burnaby, Wong credits seasoned professional musicians in the Vantopop Collective for their mentorship, though she claims to have coined the group’s name.
Her upcoming single, “Style Z”, was produced by Vancouver-based Allan Lau and Victor Tse. They are two more of the Hong Kong professional-musician expats living in Metro Vancouver. Lau and singer-songwriter Dan Wen did the arrangement, and Jone Chui wrote the lyrics to the melody.
“It’s a huge collective effort,” Wong says.
Watch the video for “Style Z”.
As for her award-winning “Sunday”, it came about during the pandemic as she and Wen, who happens to be her boyfriend, were jamming on the couch.
At the time, Wong had an itch to go travelling. But she couldn’t because everyone was stuck at home due to government restrictions.
So, she decided to spread some good cheer through her music.
“It reminds me of the times I was in California, just travelling with the sun and the vibes,” Wong says. “You just have to imagine being happy.”